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2024 Republican presidential hopeful and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley speaks at the New Hampshire Republican Party’s First in the Nation Leadership Summit in Nashua, New Hampshire, on October 13, 2023. | Source: JOSEPH PREZIOSO / Getty

Nikki Haley found herself trending on social media for all the wrong reasons after whiffing spectacularly on a softball question posed by an audience member at a town hall event Wednesday night in New Hampshire.

On face value, the question was simple enough: “What caused the Civil War?”

Haley’s answer was not only just as simple, but it was also just plain incorrect.

“I mean, I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” Haley said nonsensically before all but admitting she was clueless and asking the person who asked her the question what he thought the answer was.

When the audience member responded that he was in disbelief her answer didn’t mention the word “slavery,” Haley, who is Indian American, seemed surprised if not flustered, and asked him another question: “What do you want me to say about slavery?”

Whether the non-answer from Haley — the former governor of South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union to form the Confederate States of America (also known as the Confederacy) — was truly borne out of ignorance is anyone’s guess.

On Thursday morning, doing damage control, Haley backtracked on her flub the night before and told New Hampshire voters that “Of course, the Civil War was about slavery.”

But if history is any indication — and it usually is — Haley’s initial omission of slavery as it pertains to the cause of the Civil War was the latest instance in a larger pattern of Republicans attempting to revise, whitewash and downplay American history in which Black people are undeniably centered.

What caused the Civil War?

According to Daniel Feller, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, “there was only one reason to secede from the United States and create a new Confederacy. That was to safeguard racial slavery from the threat posed by the election of an antislavery Northerner, Abraham Lincoln, as president of the United States.”

A PBS documentary on the Civil War recalled that “the Civil War was fought over the moral issue of slavery. In fact, it was the economics of slavery and political control of that system that was central to the conflict.”

And if those mainstream sources of information aren’t good enough, national religious and civil rights leader Bishop William Barber reminded CNN’s viewers on Thursday that the Civil War “was about the oppression of Black men and women. It was about turning human beings into chattel.”

Republicans’ revisionist history

Lest we forget it was only earlier this year when Tennessee’s proclamation recognizing Confederate History Month, like Haley, also didn’t mention slavery once. The proclamation instead encouraged “all Tennesseans to increase their knowledge of this momentous era in the history of this State.”

That proclamation was signed by prominent state Republicans right around the time that two Black lawmakers in Tennessee were expelled from the House after a Republican-led vote removed them from duty for leading an anti-gun protest on the House floor in the wake of a deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Nashville.

GOP whitewashing Black history

The Republican-led whitewashing of Black history extends far beyond the specifics of the Civil War and into the classroom, where critics say Republican governors like Ron DeSantis — a presidential candidate, like Haley — have taken steps to downplay slavery and victim-shame African Americans by way of revised school curricula for Black history.

In Florida, for instance, the state Board of Education unanimously adopted new history-teaching measures in the face of demonstrated opposition in a state that has been dedicated to eliminating Black studies courses.

In 2021, an Oklahoma Republican legislator proposed a bill that would essentially penalize schools for teaching critical race theory and failing to lie about slavery in America.

In Virginia, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin pushed a curriculum for elementary school students decried by critics as “racist” because it intentionally excluded references to both slavery and historic Black figures including Martin Luther King, for whom there is a whole federal holiday.

And, of course, in Haley’s home state of South Carolina, a book written by scholar, activist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates was recently banned by a school district after students reported their teacher designed a lesson plan about the piece of literature. The 2015 nonfiction bestseller, Between the World and Me, is written in the form of a three-part letter from Coates to his teenage son chronicling his lived experiences as a Black man in America. But a few students reportedly complained that the lesson made them “uncomfortable” and “ashamed to be Caucasian,” in an example of what is likely the true motivation for all of the above and plenty of other unmentioned instances of Republicans whitewashing Black history.

Nikki Haley

To be sure, this is all on brand for Haley, who in June ripped former President Barack Obama — the first Black president — for saying that positive takes on the current state of race relations must “be undergirded with an honest accounting of our past and our present.”

Haley even announced her current presidential bid with a video that purportedly bemoaned racial division while images of The 1619 Project — an award-winning initiative that launched a nationwide discussion on the role of slavery and how it has influenced the fabric of this nation, invoking the wrath of conservative Republicans everywhere — and protests over racial injustice flashed across the screen. Haley goes on to lament in the video how “some look at our past as evidence that America’s founding principles are bad.”

In fact, Haley doesn’t only have a long-established record of whitewashing Black history — she has also been accused of whitewashing her own history.

Back in 2012, Haley, then governor of South Carolina who was putting her political power behind an initiative requiring voters to show their IDs at the polls, had to be reminded by Black civil rights leaders that she, too, is a racial minority.

“She couldn’t vote before 1965, just as I couldn’t,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said at the time about the proposed voter ID laws that critics have long seen as disproportionately affecting Black and brown voters.

Two years prior, Haley refused to say the Civil War was fought over slavery.

Haley has also previously said the Confederate Flag was not “racist” and insisted “There is a place for that flag.” It was only after backlash from those comments that Haley finally admitted “the flag has always been a symbol of slavery, discrimination and hate for many people.”

2024 election

Haley is seen as a longshot candidate in a race for the Republican presidential nomination for which Donald Trump is the frontrunner.

But in New Hampshire, where Haley’s flub on the Civil War as made, her candidacy is seen as being much stronger, polling shows.

While Haley has registered 10% support in a new Yahoo News national poll, that number more than doubles in the state of New Hampshire, where 22% of the voters have pledged their support to her.

This is America.


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